Do you know where all the minutes in your story are? As the author, you need to have an accounting for that time, and you need to understand what it can do to your characters, your story, and your reader.
Pacing in your book is as important as your characters’ motivations. A fast-paced book will necessarily move in “compressed time” – meaning there are going to be a lot of things happening in short blocks of time. Much of the time, this means the story’s progress takes place over hours or days, rather than weeks or months, but not always. Pacing your story in the fast lane means not giving your characters the chance to reflect or ruminate much on the events that happen. How you do that is up to you and the story–sometimes, it’s just piling on one damn thing after another to keep your characters on the move and too busy surviving “now” to analyze what just happened five minutes ago.
But if you’re writing something with less action and fewer death-defying events, you need something else besides the next big explosion to distract your characters. We’ve all had days where something comes up and even though you should be addressing it immediately, there’s something else that can’t be put off anymore. Give your characters some push-pull from conflicting obligations, even if it’s just soccer practice or a trip to the body shop.
But what happens to the characters in those spaces between? The downtime. Is there even downtime in your story? If you’re like me, there’s always a niggling feeling in the back of your mind that says, “wow, they’ve been going for hours…shouldn’t somebody have needed a bathroom break by now?” Because that’s what you think of when you have small children or are past a certain age–you plot your trips based on the spaces between pitstops, and you always make sure *everyone* goes at the pitstop, because five minutes after you get back on the road, the Problem Child will suddenly catch up to the rest of the car, just as you reach that stretch of roadway with absolutely nothing and nowhere to stop…
But whether or not you obsess over accounting for every single moment in the story, your reader certainly isn’t interested. Your reader probably has had trips like the one above and is more than happy to avoid reliving them in the written word. And truthfully, your characters don’t always focus on what they should be mentally analyzing in their downtime, either. In terms of story mechanics, just stop the scene. Readers–and characters–can go take care of their mundanities off-screen, and it’s not hard for a reader to assume they’re doing so. Give yourself permission to leave those parts out. If you’re like me, in my draft phase, I have to write at least some of them–it helps me establish a sense of character (how else would I have discovered that the main male lead in my current WIP preferred the elegance of cufflinks and had discovered that using moisturizer makes shaving not hurt–he’s clever, he is). It also helps me tease out subconscious elements to the story–if somebody’s having a long think while wondering what to wear, or shaving, or brewing coffee, then it’s more than likely the scene will be deleted, but the element I didn’t know I needed will appear and make the book better.
Rivers Of Time
Other stories may take years to spin out. They’re epic journeys carried across the world from one pole to the other. They’re the stories of lifetimes.
But they’re still only limited collections of influential events. And it’s not a stretch for their effect to take a leisurely time being felt. Long stretches of time can allow you to play with background events and enlarge your scope. A single conversation between neighbors addressing racial tensions can be the underscore to a ten-year arc of change as the Civil Rights movement comes home to roost in a small Southern town. Neither neighbor changes overnight, but the personal echoes the political, and the societal. The character growth emerges at a more stately pace, but it’s supported by other actions by other entities and reflects the same theme.
Slower pacing in terms of action sequences gives you a chance to really play with theme in a story, and tie character events to environmental factors.
It’s Your Clock
Play around with time and pacing in your story during your drafting. You never know when changing the pace might just reveal the real story you’ve been meaning to tell.
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She’s absolutely sure he’s not the marrying kind…
He’s absolutely sure she’s right…
But he’s still going to prove her wrong.